A New Book on Locke

Few, if any, philosophers have had the impact on American constitutional law that John Locke has had. This is especially true with respect to the Religion Clauses. Lockean ideas about the proper separation of church and state, filtered through the early Virginia experience and the writings of Madison and Jefferson, are so familiar to us today that it takes real effort to examine them objectively. A new book from the University of Chicago Press, America’s Philosopher: John Locke, by historian Claire Rydell Arcenas (University of Montana) suggests that throughout history Americans have appropriated Locke for their own ends. Looks very interesting. The publisher’s description follows:

America’s Philosopher examines how John Locke has been interpreted, reinterpreted, and misinterpreted over three centuries of American history.

The influence of polymath philosopher John Locke (1632–1704) can still be found in a dizzying range of fields, as his writings touch on issues of identity, republicanism, and the nature of knowledge itself. Claire Rydell Arcenas’s new book tells the story of Americans’ longstanding yet ever-mutable obsession with this English thinker’s ideas, a saga whose most recent manifestations have found the so-called Father of Liberalism held up as a right-wing icon.

The first book to detail Locke’s trans-Atlantic influence from the eighteenth century until today, America’s Philosopher shows how and why interpretations of his ideas have captivated Americans in ways few other philosophers—from any nation—ever have. As Arcenas makes clear, each generation has essentially remade Locke in its own image, taking inspiration and transmuting his ideas to suit the needs of the particular historical moment. Drawing from a host of vernacular sources to illuminate Locke’s often contradictory impact on American daily and intellectual life from before the Revolutionary War to the present, Arcenas delivers a pathbreaking work in the history of ideas.

Areshidze, “Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama”

In June, the University Press of Kansas will release “Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama: Faith and the Civic Life of Democracy,” by Giorgi Areshidze (Claremont McKenna College).  The publisher’s description follows:

Debating or making speeches, American politicians invariably cite tenets of Christian faith—even as they unfailingly defend the liberal principles of tolerance and religious9780700622672 neutrality that underpin a pluralistic democracy. How these seemingly contradictory impulses can coexist—and whether this undermines the religious tradition that makes a liberal democracy possible—are the pressing questions that Giorgi Areshidze grapples with in this exploration of the civic role of religion in American political life.

The early modern Enlightenment political philosophy of John Locke has been deeply influential—if often misunderstood and sometimes contested—in shaping both the theoretical and practical contours of contemporary debates and anxieties about religion in a liberal society. Areshidze demonstrates that Locke anticipated a great theological transformation of Christianity in light of modern rationalism, one that would make Christianity into a tolerant religion compatible with liberal political principles. Locke’s experiment, as this book shows, has succeeded in important respects, but at a tremendous cost—by demanding a certain theological skepticism about revealed religion that could ultimately undermine the public concern for religious or theological truth altogether.

Democratic Religion from Locke to Obama evaluates these results in light of the role of religion in American political development, particularly as this role has been further defined in the work of political philosopher John Rawls. In the political theologies of Martin Luther King, Jr., Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama, Areshidze shows how, while working under Locke’s influence, all of these thinkers draw upon religion, including traditional revealed Christian ideas, in their efforts to reshape America’s moral consciousness—especially on the question of racial equality—in ways that might have surprised Locke.

Finally, drawing on Alexis de Tocqueville’s encounter with the Lockean experiment in America, this book suggests that the dissonance between how tolerant we want religion to be and what we expect it to accomplish in our civic life is a consequence of the liberal transformation of religion. By reminding us of this religious transformation, Tocqueville’s “political science” may explain some of the deepest spiritual and civic anxieties that continue to beset American democracy.

Prtichard, “Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology”

Here’s an interesting new book, Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology Religion in Public(Stanford University Press 2013) by Elizabeth A. Pritchard (Department of Religion, Bowdoin) that considers and challenges the view that John Locke sought to privatize religion and instead argues that Locke’s political theology aimed to secularize religion and make it public. John Locke’s views about religion and toleration, of course, are important as intellectual sources for the religion clauses of the US Constitution. The abstract follows.

John Locke’s theory of toleration is generally seen as advocating the privatization of religion. This interpretation has become conventional wisdom: secularization is widely understood as entailing the privatization of religion, and the separation of religion from power. This book turns that conventional wisdom on its head and argues that Locke secularizes religion, that is, makes it worldly, public, and political. In the name of diverse citizenship, Locke reconstructs religion as persuasion, speech, and fashion. He insists on a consensus that human rights are sacred insofar as humans are the creatures, and thus, the property of God. Drawing on a range of sources beyond Locke’s own writings, Pritchard portrays the secular not as religion’s separation from power, but rather as its affiliation with subtler, and sometimes insidious, forms of power. As a result, she captures the range of anxieties and conflicts attending religion’s secularization: denunciations of promiscuous bodies freed from patriarchal religious and political formations, correlations between secular religion and colonialist education and conversion efforts, and more recently, condemnations of the coercive and injurious force of unrestricted religious speech.

On the Claim that Separation Strengthens Religion

George Will has a long essay in National Affairs on religion and the American SeparationRepublic. It’s interesting in parts: as a self-professed “None,” Will reflects on the importance (but also the non-necessity) of religion as a support for American public and political life. Here’s a fragment:

[E]ven the founders who were unbelievers considered it a civic duty — a public service — to be observant unbelievers. For example, two days after Jefferson wrote his famous letter endorsing a “wall of separation” between church and state, he attended, as he and other government officials often would, church services held in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Services were also held in the Treasury building.

Jefferson and other founders made statesmanlike accommodation of the public’s strong preference, which then as now was for religion to enjoy ample space in the public square. They understood that Christianity, particularly in its post-Reformation ferments, fostered attitudes and aptitudes associated with, and useful to, popular government. Protestantism’s emphasis on the individual’s direct, unmediated relationship with God and the primacy of individual conscience and choice subverted conventions of hierarchical societies in which deference was expected from the many toward the few.

Beyond that, however, the American founding owed much more to John Locke than to Jesus. The founders created a distinctly modern regime, one respectful of pre-existing rights — rights that exist before government and so are natural in that they are not creations of the regime that exists to secure them. In 1786, the year before the Constitutional Convention, in the preamble to the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Jefferson proclaimed: “[O]ur civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.”

In fact, religion is central to the American polity precisely because religion is not central to American politics. That is, religion plays a large role in nurturing the virtue that republican government presupposes because of the modernity of America. Our nation assigns to politics and public policy the secondary and subsidiary role of encouraging, or at least not stunting, the flourishing of the infrastructure of institutions that have the primary responsibility for nurturing the sociology of virtue. American religion therefore coexists comfortably with, but is not itself a component of, American government.

Religion’s independence of politics has been part of its strength. There is a fascinating paradox at work in our nation’s history: America, the first and most relentlessly modern nation, is — to the consternation of social scientists — also the most religious modern nation. One important reason for this is that we have disentangled religion from public institutions.

One hears this kind of “fascinating paradox” claim frequently, but what’s much more fascinating is that one hears it from both conservative and progressive quarters. For conservatives it reinforces the myth of special American religious vigor that Americans like to tell themselves is a vital source of their collective civic health. For progressives it represents a distinctively American and putatively “pro-religion” argument for keeping religion as far away from politics as possible. American exceptionalism may be out of favor in elite circles, but this particular strain of it dies hard.

The claim is that religion is so vibrant in America only because (or uniquely because) it is so pure, so separate from public institutions. It’s an argument that Madison made famous in his “Memorial and Remonstrance” and that Justice Souter has made in his religion clause jurisprudence (see his dissent in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris) and that now George Will makes. It reflects a distinctively evangelical ethic that one sees in full blossom in the writing of Roger Williams (as well as, before him, John Milton), for whom religion could never quite be pure enough–an ethic that hyper-emphasizes the unvarnished, utterly and uncomplicatedly sincere credos of what William James much later would call the gloomily intense “twice-born.”

Notice also the individualistic current on which the claim rides. It isn’t just that the state is “likely to get it wrong”; that is an argument for disestablishment (although one not available to secularists, since “it” is completely “wrong”). The deeper undercurrent of the separationist claim is that individuals, not entities, are the ones “likely to get it right”–that true-blue, healthfully zesty religiosity depends on a kind of inward exercise of discernment borne from fervent conviction that is always in peril of depurification by associational adulteration. It is a claim made primarily by those whose experience of “bad” religion was group religion– and traditional group religion at that. And the claim retains at least part of its power because of its still vital anti-clerical, anti-institutional foundations. (On Roger Williams’s views on this score, see Philip Hamburger’s extended discussion; the claim’s full-throated adoption by secular philosophers like Martha Nussbaum has seemed anachronistic to me, but it makes far more sense viewed from the perspective of an autonomous spiritual “seeker” peering through an anti-institutional lens. Andrew Koppelman has a long piece attempting to update it for modern times). Many have made the claim; surely many will continue to do so.

But is the claim true? In part, perhaps, but only with substantial qualifications of a kind that make it problematic. There is nothing inevitable (or “logical,” as George Will might put it) about religious strength that follows ineluctably from its complete separation from government. There is no iron law that says: the more we separate religion from government, the stronger religion must become. Such a claim would run headlong into many counterexamples, contemporary and ancient. The ancient examples make the claim appear patently absurd. One wants to ask: “Do you actually mean to tell me that no society which has not observed strict separation between church and state has had a flourishing religious life? So there was no flourishing religious life in any of countless pre-modern societies that existed before Milton or Locke or Roger Williams or whoever got busy?” And to take only one modern case, religion and the state have been strictly separated for some time in laic France and in other extremely secular European countries, and the strength of religious life in those countries is by all accounts much weaker than it was in prior historical periods when there was greater proximity and interpenetration of church and state.

I suppose one might argue that religious weakness in a country like France is the result of the long, noxious association of church and state that preceded separation, and that we just need some more time before a newly flourishing religiosity emerges. That seems highly dubious. Church and state have been separated in France for over a century (since 1905). How much longer is it supposed to take for this delicate flower to bloom in the desert? In fact, it seems much more likely that strict separation of church and state has either contributed to the weakening of religious life in a country like France or (even more plausibly) that it has occurred at a time when religiosity was weakening for reasons of its own–reasons unrelated to, or at least independent of, strict separationism.

If some notion of separation did in fact at one time contribute to a stronger collective religious life in the United States, the reason had little to do with any necessary connection in this respect, and more to do with the unique historical and cultural circumstances of the United States–circumstances in which the Puritan evangelicalism represented by Roger Williams’s particular style of fire-and-brimstone, garden-and-the-wilderness religiosity was much more powerful in the United States than it is today. Church-state separation may be a strategy that makes religion seem stronger, provided that one is beginning from the evangelical paradigm of the twice-born soul. But it is a different matter if religion is commonly perceived in wildly different terms and expected to perform entirely different functions.

At any rate, the action of separation on religion’s strength in America was situational and circumstantial; it was hardly causal or inevitable; and it is hardly inevitable that a policy of more stringent separationism at this juncture in the country’s history and cultural circumstances will result in a more vibrant religious life. Countries with other backgrounds and other histories who look to the United States as a model in this respect may well be misled. The pre-existing evangelical bulwark made church-state separation look like a real shot in the arm for religion, not the other way round.

It is a distinctively lawyerly foible to believe that the weakening or strengthening of broad and entrenched cultural phenomena is caused, or even substantially affected, by a government policy or a court-imposed legal rule. This is not to say that legal policies do not have social effects; of course they do. But the degree of influence often is neither unidirectional nor especially significant. There are signs that traditional forms of religiosity are weakening in the United States: the rise of the “Nones” of which George Will counts himself a member is only one such sign. The gathering strength of the Nones is occurring when religion is as a general matter more “disentangled from public institutions” than at any point in the country’s history. Perhaps the Nones and other religio-cultural movements augur new forms of religiosity in America, forms that will eventually supplant the traditional varieties of religious experience. On these matters, see several posts by my colleague Mark, who is studying this issue. But however these changes may go, government policies relating to church and state are likely to have nothing more than an unpredictable and largely incidental effect on these developments.

John Locke’s Constitution for the Carolinas (1669): Thoughts on “Churches”

John Locke drafted a constitution for the Carolinas in 1669, entitled, “The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina.”  His draft was never ratified, but here are some provisions relating to “churches” which may be of some interest, in light of the resurgence of scholarship involving the liberty of the church:

Ninety-seven. But since the natives of that place, who will be concerned in our plantation, are utterly strangers to Christianity, whose idolatry, ignorance, or mistake gives us no right to expel or use them ill; and those who remove from other parts to plant there will unavoidably be of different opinions concerning matters of religion, the liberty whereof they will expect to have allowed them, and it will not be reasonable for us, on this account, to keep them out, that civil peace may be maintained amidst diversity of opinions, and our agreement and compact with all men may be duly and faithfully observed; the violation whereof, upon what presence soever, cannot be without great offence to Almighty God, and great scandal to the true religion which we profess; and also that Jews, heathens, and other dissenters from the purity of Christian religion may not be scared and kept at a distance from it, but, by having an opportunity of acquainting themselves with the truth and reasonableness of its doctrines, and the peaceableness and inoffensiveness of its professors, may, by good usage and persuasion, and all those convincing methods of gentleness and meekness, suitable to the rules and design of the gospel, be won ever to embrace and unfeignedly receive the truth; therefore, any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church or profession, to which they shall give some name, to distinguish it from others.


One hundred. In the terms of communion of every church or profession, these following shall be three; without which no agreement or assembly of men, upon presence of religion, shall be accounted a church or profession within these rules:

1st. “That there is a God.”

II. “That God is publicly to be worshipped.”

III. “That it is lawful and the duty of every man, being thereunto called by those that govern, to bear witness to truth; and that every church or profession shall, in their terms of communion, set down the external way whereby they witness a truth as in the presence of God, whether it be by laying hands on or kissing the bible, as in the Church of England, or by holding up the hand, or any other sensible way.”

Some thoughts on the language about “churches” and what constitutes them:

1. Locke seems to want to be generous for, among other reasons (some religious), the strategic reason of conversion.  He recognizes that the many “strangers” to Christianity will expect religious liberty, and maintenance of civic peace demands that they have it, but “by good usage and persuasion” these people are hopefully to be converted.  All of this is familiar from the Letter Concerning Toleration, but what really interested me was the final line of section 97: “therefore, any seven or more persons agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church or profession, to which they shall give some name, to distinguish it from others.”  Notice Locke’s emphasis on, to use a legal term, numerosity!  What constitutes a “church” is in part a numerical characteristic.  You cannot be a “church” under Locke’s constitution with less than seven members.  This numerical feature highlights the sociality of an ecclesial structure.  And we continue to struggle with it today (compare, e.g., Psychic Sophie and related controversies).

2.  But there are also substantive characteristics that must be satisfied.  Belief in God, of course, but notice the public quality of the other two elements!  You cannot be a church unless you worship God “publicly.”  And there must be official rules for that public worship–the church must promulgate rules which “set down the external way” in which  church members will witness the truth as they apprehend it.  The emphasis on these external, public, ritualistic functions of churches–and therefore, in part, on the public functions that they serve, the ‘civil religion’ function–is perhaps not quite so common today but it is still present.

Galenkamp on Locke and Bayle on Religious Toleration

Marlies Galenkamp (Erasmus University Rotterdam) has posted Locke and Bayle on Religious Toleration.  The abstract follows.

In Western-European societies, two questions are currently at the centre of political debate. What is the scope and what are the limits of religious toleration? What is the proper role of the state with regard to religious issues? By addressing these two topics, Dutch constitutional law scholars commonly start from two presumptions. First of all, the presumption in favour of liberty (leading to a quite absolute interpretation of fundamental rights) and secondly, the doctrine of interpretative restraint by civil authorities with regard to religious matters. These presumptions are generally considered as uncontested axioms. It seems to me that both presumptions may be qualified, however. This will be done by elaborating on the views of two 17th-century scholars on religious toleration, the Englishman John Locke and the Frenchman Pierre Bayle. Interestingly, both formulated their insights during their exile in the Dutch Republic. It will turn out that the dominant interpretation of the presumptions rests on a too superficial reading of Locke and on a disregard of Bayle’s insights, respectively.

Sherwood, “Biblical Blaspheming”

Last month, Cambridge University Press published Biblical Blaspheming: Trials of the Sacred for the Secular Age by Yvonne Sherwood (University of Glasgow).  The publisher’s description follows.

This book explores the strange persistence of ‘blasphemy’ in modern secular democracies by examining how accepted and prohibited ways of talking and thinking about the Bible and religion have changed over time. In a series of wide-ranging studies engaging disciplines such as politics, literature and visual theory, Yvonne Sherwood brings the Bible into dialogue with a host of interlocutors including John Locke, John Donne and the 9/11 hijackers, as well as artists such as Sarah Lucas and René Magritte. Questions addressed include:  What is the origin of the common belief that the Bible, as opposed to the Qur’an, underpins liberal democratic values?  What kind of artworks does the biblical God specialise in?  If pre-modern Jewish, Christian and Islamic responses to scripture can be more ‘critical’ than contemporary speech about religion, how does this affect our understanding of secularity, modernity and critique?